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Growing Complexity of Aerospace Manufacturing Creates Challenges for Supply Chain

Quality, attention to detail remain top priorities for contract manufacturers

Mark Shortt
Editorial Director
Design-2-Part Magazine

The tragic crashes of two Boeing 737 Max jetliners in recent months are grim reminders of what can happen when an error compromises aircraft safety in some way.

It remains to be seen what the investigations into the crashes will ultimately reveal. Will they be traced to faulty design or manufacturing, inadequate flight-control software, insufficient flight training, or a misguided decision somewhere along the way?

Regardless of the final determination, aircraft OEMs, prime contractors, and high-tier suppliers are sure to continue ramping up their reliance on the precision manufacturing services of qualified contract manufacturers who can ensure product quality and safety.

Historically, the U.S. aerospace industry’s success in meeting its need for quality is reflected in statistics that show remarkably few fatalities caused by U.S. commercial passenger jet travel in recent years prior to the crashes.

Data from the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) for the year 2017, the latest year for which statistics are available on the NTSB’s website, show a total of 38,958 fatalities resulting from various U.S. transportation modes, including highway, rail, marine, aviation, and pipeline. An overwhelming majority–37,133, or 95 percent of the total–were a result of highway accidents. Although 350 of the fatalities (0.009 percent) occurred in aviation disasters, a grand total of zero were attributable to incidents involving airlines.

There were also zero fatalities resulting from airline travel for the years 2014-2015 and 2015-2016, according to NTSB’s data.

Richard Aboulafia, a prominent industry analyst and vice president of analysis of the Teal Group, lauded the safety record of the U.S. air travel system, noting that only one death had occurred over the last decade. “There’s never been a form of transportation designed by nature or humans that has produced miraculous numbers like that,” he told Design-2-Part Magazine. “So many things need to go wrong before it becomes unsafe.”

Statistics on commercial aircraft passenger safety have been so consistently excellent that it’s become somewhat easy to overlook the painstaking difficulty of designing, manufacturing, and finally assembling a high-performance, fuel efficient passenger jet that’s deemed safe for air travel. Reaching that milestone marks the end of a journey that challenges manufacturers at every step of the supply chain: Can they deliver quality parts on time and on budget, while also being flexible enough to adapt to changing design and production requirements along the way?

Reasons for why it’s difficult are many, and it’s continuing to get even harder. Parts have complicated geometries and high-performance requirements, and many are difficult to machine or weld. Processes for composite materials are complex. And even though software, automation, and other innovations are opening up a lot of opportunity, they’re creating challenges, too. Software-connected products introduce new vulnerabilities, software needs to be updated, and sensors and other critical components need to be thoroughly inspected in real time to eliminate defects.

Today, parts are being built with software embedded in them, making things more complicated for the manufacturing engineer in several ways. But this convergence of hardware and software also encourages better collaboration with the design team to ensure that design intent is being met and that the product meets specifications and is functioning as intended. The bottom line is that as aerospace manufacturing becomes more complex, quality and attention to detail not only remain the top priorities but take on even greater importance.

It’s encouraging to know that many AS9100 certified contract manufacturing companies are upping their games as they’re being pushed and extended by the pressures of the industry and the challenges of working with newer, more advanced technologies. They’re taking steps to ensure quality by doing things like embedding a quality control person in a manufacturing cell to monitor quality as parts are being made. In some cases, they’re becoming experts in new processes and technologies and bringing them in-house to exercise more control over quality.

And it’s a good bet that companies that do work for the aerospace industry are stressing to their employees the urgency of paying attention to details. But savvy company leaders recognize that other qualities are also important.

Gary Bertolucci, president of custom metal fabricator WB Industries, a 15-year supplier to the aerospace industry, told Design-2-Part Magazine it’s important that the company’s machinists have more than just knowledge of machining, or knowledge of the aerospace industry. They should like to take on challenges, have a problem-solving mentality, and be willing to look at different ways of doing things.

“We’re looking for people, number one, that don’t just get locked into ’I’m a machinist, that’s all I do; I want to sit in front of my machine and watch the part run.’ You’ve got to be able to be flexible, you’ve got to be willing to look at how to do things differently. Often, our clients come to us and aren’t just looking for us to make something. They’ll say, ’Here’s our problem; here’s the challenge we have. How are you going to go about solving this for us?’ We need employees who are willing to look at a different way of doing things because often, that’s what it takes to get our repeat business.”

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